It has been a year. You cannot say that it hasn’t been a year.
I had so many things I wanted to talk about before the end of the year. So many things I wanted to write. It was a year of curveballs, and boundary stretching, and my Saturn return laying it on a little thick. I wanted to talk about relationships that brittle, and emergency rooms, and hot springs, and what I’ve learned, and what I haven’t, and the Great British Bake-Off. I wanted to talk about grief within, and without, a family structure, about drugs, and solo travel, and my dog who just died, and how I don’t know what to do about this gulf of unconditional love, and why do my dogs always die in December.
We shall save that for 2019. Or maybe I’ll leave some of it in 2018. I haven’t decided.
For now, I want to give you a gift: the gift of really good writing I had absolutely nothing to do with. In no particular order, here are the 60 best pieces of writing (fiction, nonfiction, longform, shortform, sentence-length, poems, essays, classic, freshly-baked) by women and nonbinary writers I read this year.
I can’t think of a better way to start 2019 than with a big cup of coffee and a hearty stack of all this wondrous female talent.
Happy New Year, staunchlettes.
The 60 Best Things Written by Women I Read in 2018
1. Àgua Viva (1973) by Clarice Lispector
My friend Erin recommended this book to me this summer. It’s not for everyone but if it’s for you, it’s for you: an exquisite meditation on presence, art, creation, life, death, and time. I read it almost entirely in the pool—so many of the pages are wrinkled and sunbaked from losing my balance in its prose. This book will stay with me forever. This is one of my favorite sentences of all time and the best use of a well-placed “hallelujah” since Shrek.
2. How Do We Write Now? By Patricia Lockwood (Tin House RIP)
This is the best thing I’ve read about artistic creation in the Trump era. Probably why I’ve read it at least five times since it came out. As to how we write, here are (sort of) her answers to that: reserve space in your day just for yourself (like your mornings—claim them ferociously), remember you are not alone, understand your concentration is sacred and so is your escape, seek out rich and funny things, laugh when those things are funny, and remember that your existence in itself is an antidote and a counter-argument to all the gross shit in the world.
3. I Think About This a Lot: When Stuart Little Went on a Date by Naomi Fry (The Cut)
There’s so much we can learn about the power differentials in heterosexual mating rituals from the prim rodent with kind eyes.
4. The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin
Favorite line: “Most women are moody and whimsical.”
5. Severance (2018) by Ling Ma
Part-apocalyptic novel, part-workplace drama, part-recent historical fiction, part-immigrant narrative, part-idk…horrific fungal plague survivalist manual? It’s short and perfect and devastating without being fussy. Favorite line: “The sobs heaved out almost euphorically, like air bubbles in seltzer water, that first crisp sip.”
6. “The world is infested with evil!” When Kathy Acker met the Spice Girls by Acker and intro’d by Hayley Campbell (The Guardian)
Acker gets charmed by the Spice Girls and it’s just a pure delight to read. Favorite line: “...It is up to feminism to grow, to take on what the Spice Girls, and women like them, are saying, and to do what feminism has always done in England, to keep on transforming society as society is best transformed, with lightness and in joy.” :)
7. How a Woman Becomes a Lake by Jia Tolentino (New Yorker)
Probably my favorite of Tolentino’s writing this year. This about how man’s approach to practically everything forever has been defined and poisoned by his approach to women: conquest. In essence: men are brutes and they have shaped the world in the image of their brutality. Chill.
8. The female price of male pleasure by Lili Loofbourow (The Week)
Should be required reading for every single citizen, posted on billboards and printed on burger wrappers and replace the Gideon Bible in motel nightstands.
9. This passage from A Legacy by Sybille Bedford:
10. This Apartment's Art Deco Bathroom Color Combo Is Must-See by mee (Apartment Therapy)
How’d this get in here!
11. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2007)
As good as everyone says it is.
12. Every entry in Anne Thériault’s “Queens of Infamy” series for Longreads
I read these like bedtime stories. The illustrations by Louise Pomeroy are also top-notch.
13. Custom of the Country (1913) by Edith Wharton
Am ferociously protective of the bratty woman at the core of this book, Undine Spragg—a striving, irritable, narcisstic young pretty thing who uses her beauty, i.e. her one currency as a turn-of-the-century woman, to lure suitors/suckers into giving her exactly what she wants then leaves them when they start to bore her! Maybe they should have tried not being boring! Also, Elmer Moffat can bang. Favorite line: “Divorce without a lover? Why, it’s—it’s as unnatural as getting drunk on lemonade.”
14. Not Everything Is a Side Hustle by Ann Friedman (The Cut)
I return to this piece every time I start dreaming about turning my Color Me Mine fetish into a moneymaker.
15. In a Lonely Place (1947) by Dorothy Hughes
The story combined three of my favorite things: women writers with twisted brains, midcentury noir, and seeing LA street names I recognize in old books (Camden! Wilshire! Mesa Road!). While violence against women is not my first choice for leisure reading right now, the skillful writing and satisfying unraveling of a killer’s misogynistic worldview make this a book I can’t recommend highly enough.
16. How death got cool by Marisa Meltzer (The Guardian)
Death been cool!
17. This Barbara Pym quote from Less Than Angels is so charming, sweet, and British, it deserves a Paul Hollywood handshake.
18. You Will Not Own a Porsche One Day by Nicole Skibola (Girls at Library)
On Chopin’s The Awakening and the things we let go of in pursuit of the essential us.
19. The Male Glance by Lili Loofbourow (VQR)
Another Loofbourow! This one on the disregarded intentionality of female art. Maybe 2019 will be the year we finally get over the idea that women are only geniuses by accident. Favorite line: “There’s better performance art in almost any woman than there is in a thousand James Francos.”
20. Japan’s Rent-a-Family Industry by Elif Batuman (New Yorker)
Read all the way to see how Batuman got to this point: “I’d started off assuming that the rental schema somehow undercut the idea of unconditional love. Now I found myself wondering whether it was even possible to get unconditional love without paying.”
21. My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy by Andrea Long Chu (New York Times)
The longer we think of medical transition in terms of clinical need, Long Chu argues, the more we are subjugating trans identity to the moral and political opinions of an establishment that has been historically, glacially slow to recognize their humanity.
22. Toward a More Radical Selfie by India Ennenga
“Maybe selfies are what happen when a society sends a missive without a recipient.” (*boom*)
23. I pulled a 1,500-year-old sword out of a lake by Saga Vanecek (The Guardian)
This essay by an eight-year-old girl who pulled an ancient sword out of a Swedish lake is my religion. Favorite lines: “People on the internet are saying I am the queen of Sweden, because in the legend of King Arthur, he was given a sword by a lady in a lake, and that meant he would become king. I am not a lady – I’m only eight – but it’s true I found a sword in the lake. I wouldn’t mind being queen for a day, but when I grow up I want to be a vet. Or an actor in Paris.”
24. Melania Trump Plays the Role of Medieval Queen by Sonja Drimmer (The Atlantic)
I really loved this piece about how Melania, in her contrived role earlier this year as advocate and intercessor on behalf of migrant children (with all the warmth and tenderness of an ice sculpture of a guillotine), mirrored the behavior of a medieval queen. According to this article, queens in the Middle Ages play-acted as advocates for the less fortunate, but the queen was still essentially powerless, the presumption of her charity a tool in the king’s arsenal, the façade of a consort’s “private intervention” providing cover should he wish to change course without seeming weak. In other words: bullshit.
25. This Nellie McClung quote, which my friend saw on a menu in New York.
Not the most poetic place for a revolution but maybe not the least? I like that it made her think of me.
26. Louise Linton Is Super-Duper Sorry by Carrie Battan (Elle)
My favorite profile of the year. Put it in the time capsule. It’ll help the aliens see where everything went wrong.
27. ‘Designing Women’ Creator Goes Public With Les Moonves War: Not All Harassment Is Sexual by Linda Bloodworth Thomason
Thomason added to our understanding of Moonves as an unrepentant douchebag with her account of how Moonves, ever vindictive and mercurial, savaged her career at CBS after the smash success of her show Designing Women. I found myself cheering after the first paragraph and—not to make light of his disgusting behavior—shouting: Les Moonves, you will never alter drapes in Atlanta again.
28. Jane Campion: ‘Capitalism is such a macho force. I felt run over’ by Kate Muir (The Guardian)
Campion was, is, and always will be a huge goddamn vibe.
29. Actually We Don't Owe You Sex, and We Never Will by Moira Donegan (Cosmopolitan)
Donegan’s excellent rebuttal to that whole “incels murder because you won't sleep with them” thing.
30. How to Write a Feminist “Dead Girl” Story by Emma Copley Eisenberg (Paris Review)
A really well-done piece about the ubiquity of dead (white) girl stories, how the narratives—which are so rarely about the victims themselves but about the violent, raging eccentricities of male pain—endanger men of color, and what our attraction to these tragedies, both fictional and real, says about us as a culture.
31. Anita Hill: How to Get the Kavanaugh Hearings Right (New York Times)
32. India Mahdavi, Virtuoso of Color by Lauren Collins (New Yorker)
Favorite line: “The hemline index posits that women’s skirts rise in tandem with the stock market; perhaps Mahdavi is correct in thinking that an embrace of color corresponds to a desire for cheer amid anxiety, and for sensuality in algorithmic times.” Sensuality in algorithmic times!
33. Rebecca Traister’s Twitter thread on the Republican outrage that followed Samantha Bee calling Ivanka Trump a feckless cunt
Such a good, concise meditation on power and real vs. imagined harm.
34. ‘I Feel Pretty’ and the Rise of Beauty-Standard Denialism by Amanda Hess (New York Times)
Articulated an important truth in the age of body positivity and exhaustingly feel-good Dove commercials: the standards for female beauty have actually never been higher.
35. The poem “a fine art” from Ysra Daley-Ward’s collection bone
36. The Mothers (2016) by Brit Bennett
Favorite Line: “Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger. We have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more.”
37. Emily Dickinson’s Patreon by Riane Konc (The New Yorker)
$15 a month for “grief splinters” is not a terribly bargain.
38. The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983) by Fay Weldon
Weldon says some truly awful and crazy shit these days, but this book of hers from the eighties is really campy and fun, addictively so. Favorite line: “Nothing is impossible, not for she-devils.”
39. I Made the Pizza Cinnamon Rolls from Mario Batali’s Sexual Misconduct Apology Letter by Geraldine Deruiter (Medium)
Advice: If you’re going to include a recipe for pizza dough cinnamon rolls in your blanket apology for being a colossal dirtbag, they better be some damn good rolls. Favorite line: “I hate them, but I keep eating them. Like I’m somehow destroying Batali’s shitty sexist horcrux in every bite.”
40. History Will Recall, George Bush Did Nothing at All by Garance Franke-Ruta (The Cut)
Remember when George H.W. Bush died on World AIDS Day? God loves to laugh. Weird I have to say this but men who passively exterminate a whole community of people for the sake of dubious ethical and political calculations are not, despite the ramblings of Civility Twitter, “decent.”
41. Justin Timberlake, John Mayer, And The Western Rehab For White Masculinity by Anne Helen Petersen (Buzzfeed)
If you saw the Staunchly gift guide (check your spam!), you already know how I feel about 2018 Justin Timberlake.
42. The Watergate Blueprint for Impeaching Donald Trump by Elizabeth Holtzman (The Intercept)
A breakdown of Trump’s impeachable offenses placed in historical context by a woman who helped bring down Nixon.
43. Florida by Lauren Groff
One of the most sensational short story collections I have ever read. Be warned: this isn’t light writing. It’s thick, swampy, humid, hungry, gummy writing. When you finish a story it doesn’t evaporate; it sticks—suspending you in that fuzzy lime green layer above a pond where nature feels electric. I guess what I’m saying is that I never thought I’d love anything named after that damned swing state and yet, here we are.
44. If men had to get IUDs, they’d get epidurals and a hospital stay by Casey Johnston (The Outline)
It’s wild that women receive “virtually zero pain management” while getting an IUD, a process many describe as the worst pain they’ve ever felt. We need to start talking loudly and defiantly about the extraordinary amount of pain we go through just to exist in a world where men still think they have a right to our bodies.
45. ‘Join the DSA, Comrades’: The Leftist Political Slogans Bravolebrities Were (and Weren't) Willing to Say by Caroline Moss (Jezebel)
This is the lord at work. Sexy Unique Proletariats of the World, Unite!
46. No, I Will Not Debate You by Laurie Penny (Longreads)
Favorite line: “the idea that politeness and civility is owed to anyone in a position of power is one of the great gotchas of liberal thought.”
47. The entire Feminize Your Canon feature by Emma Garman at the Paris Review, which has introduced me to so many incredible women writers I wouldn’t have otherwise come across.
48. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
This book scared the shit out of me. McNamara passed away before she could finish, so the final product, though well-crafted, lacks the polish of other nonfiction at this level. You can see all the seams, and the way her obsession tangles into itself. But ultimately that rawness only heightens the edginess you feel as you read it.
49. Eileen (2015) by Ottessa Moshfegh
I enjoyed this earlier novel by Moshfegh more than My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It’s gross and unsparing but ultimately beautiful. This is such a dynamite quote.
50. I Took a Tinder Date to My Office Holiday Party by Dana Hamilton (Vice)
51.Monica Lewinsky: Emerging from “the House of Gaslight” in the Age of #MeToo (Vanity Fair)
Reading this essay, from a good, soulful writer, made me think of all the great culture we lose when we demolish women for their mistakes (and forgive the men).
52. The Cloying Fantasia of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” by Emily Nussbaum (New Yorker)
I like Mrs. Maisel! I think it’s (mostly) kicky escapist pleasure. But I also don’t trust the Sherman-Palladinos not to turn a cute idea into a twee nightmare. I fear that’s starting to happen with the second season. I think Nussbaum nails it when she talks about how the show sands off all the grit and saltiness of Joan Rivers’ career and repurposes the nub—Jewish woman does comedy in the fifties—into a treacly product that doesn’t earn its source material. That said, the aesthetics of the show are fabulous and I’m sure I’ll keep watching.
53. Goodbye, Vitamin (2017) by Rachel Khong
Favorite line: “She looks only a little ruffled, as though someone has unexpectedly handed her a warm water balloon.”
54. All the obituaries the New York Times published in its “Overlooked” series
55. Ten Days in a Mad-house (1887) by Nellie Bly
A groundbreaking look at the horrific treatment of mental patients in a 19th century asylum.
56. “What Happens When a Bad-Tempered, Distractible Doofus Runs an Empire?” by Miranda Carter (New Yorker)
I can tell you one thing about this piece comparing Trump to the man that led Germany into WWI! I can tell you this: it won’t make you feel better! Most wtf line: “Trump’s tweets were what first reminded me of the Kaiser.”
57. Heartburn (1983) by Nora Ephron
Captured everything I disliked and distrusted about DC. Favorite line: “What I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It’s a sure thing! It’s a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure; it has a mathematical certainty in a world where those of us who long for some kind of certainty are forced to settle for crossword puzzles.”
58. When Women Demanded Pay for Housework by Lux Alptraum (Topic)
I loved this piece on the ’70s Wages for Housework movement, the radical feminist crusade to secure a government wage for women who perform otherwise-free domestic labor. The movement was based on the idea that women’s liberation could be achieved not (just) through their advancement in the capitalist economy, but by obtaining recognition for the valuable services they were already providing, in the form of compensation. It’s a fascinating look at both the group and its critics from inside the feminist community.
59. I Used to Insist I Didn’t Get Angry. Not Anymore. by Leslie Jamison (NYT Mag)
Jamison is our preeminent historian on female anger. A powerful piece on the cultural narrative of feminine fury, the synchronicity of anger and sadness, and the racial implications of “fierce” women. It also introduced me to what have now become some of my favorite poetic lines ever, by Kiki Petrosino in her poem “At the Lighthouse”:
60. Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
This book, just wow. That’s all I can muster. Every time I even think about it I become a little puddle. Favorite line: too many to choose. And most of them, too dark.
61. The letter of recommendation Sylvia Plath’s psychiatrist wrote on her behalf for her application to the Fulbright Scholarship
In April, I went back to DC for the first time since moving. It was sort of a bizarre trip. I kept waiting to be hit with a wave of nostalgia, any sentimentality for my home base of four years, but it never came. Why would it have? DC and I never got each other. On my first day there this spring, I wandered the city after a red-eye while I waited for my hotel room to be ready. I visited one of my favorite museums, the National Portrait Gallery, and as luck would have it, stumbled into an exhibit on the life of Sylvia Plath. It felt so out of place in DC. Or maybe I’m just too protective of complicated, damaged women. Either way, I wanted to shout at the black and white picture of her that greeted me: This is not our town.
This letter was in the exhibit. It moved me to tears (could have also been the jet lag). I turn to it whenever I’m feeling low and like I’ll never get a grip on my mental illness. It helps me remember that the mechanisms that keep my nerves close to the surface, ever raw and charged like exposed electricity, are the very same that churn out the qualities I like about myself, a capacity and a willingness to feel greatly and bravely.
The letter has gotten me through some tough times this year. Maybe it will help you, too.